eSwatini where wildlife matters more than human’s

eSwatini where wildlife matters more than human’s

By Khulekani Nene

Life has become cheap for emaSwati communities sharing boundaries with predominantly white-owned game parks. Emboldened by the Game Amended Act 1991, the game rangers, who have become a law unto themselves, go about shooting and killing suspected poachers without fear for prosecution.

The latest killing is that of Daniel Zakhele Gamedze, who had just turned 49 years, when the rangers allegedly shot him dead on 13 April 2021. Gamedze had lived all his life at Mahlabatsini area near Siphofaneni, a small town located about 45 kilometres away from eSwatini’s commercial hub, Manzini.

Daniel Zakhele Gamedze who was allegedly shot dead by Mkhaya Game Reserve rangers on 13th April 2021.

Gamedze’s home is located not very far from Mkhaya Game Reserve. According to the deceased’s daughter Cebisile, her father was not poaching but was busy in his garden when rangers fired at him.

“Two of my siblings witnessed the shooting of my father. Another woman who was fetching water from a nearby river, which runs near my father’s garden, also witnessed the shooting,” said Cebisile. She said her father was shot outside the boundaries of the game park adding that the deceased was not poaching or carrying any carcass of a game when he was killed.

She said before her father was killed, game rangers would occasionally storm their home to search for game carcasses whenever there had been a case of poaching at the game park. The Game Act allows rangers to “to carry out searches without a warrant…”.

The killing of Gamedze sparked widespread condemnation from emaSwati of all walks of life. Then Siphofaneni MP Mduduzi Simelane, who is now in hiding after a warrant of arrest was issued against him, visited the Gamedze’s home accompanied by other two pro-democracy MPs Bacede Mabuza and Mthandeni Dube, who are currently incarcerated on terrorism and treason charges for calling for political changes within parliament.

In a video posted on his official Facebook page, Simelane condemned the killing of Gamedze and further called for an investigation. He added: “I am told, in the neighbouring constituency of Gilgal, eight people have been killed by rangers (after they were suspected of poaching). I am hurting! We cannot allow this to continue”.

In response to the criticism, Big Game Parks issued a statement wherein it insisted that Gamedze was shot while poaching. The entity claimed Gamedze fled when rangers attempted to apprehend him hence he was shot on the thigh and bled to death as there was no vehicle to immediately rush him to hospital.

Reads the statement in part: “Previously, Mr Gamedze had multiple brushes with the law, including the poaching of wildlife, and he had a number of cases pending before the courts at the time of his death”.

Statement by Big Game Parks following widespread condemnation of the killing of suspected poacher Daniel Gamedze. (Source: Times of Eswatini)

However, this was disputed by Gamedze’s family. Cebisile, the deceased’s daughter, believes her father was deliberately ‘eliminated’ by the rangers because they viewed him as a troublesome poacher. The Gamedze family has not opened a case against the rangers as they believe that the justice system will likely side with Big Game Parks.

Gamedze left behind 7 children. The youngest is in grade II. The family now struggles to make ends meet as Gamedze was a breadwinner. Big Game Parks did not compensate or apologise to the family. It only offered “sincere condolences” through a press statement.

 “Because our home is located near the game park, each time they find snares inside the game park, we are the first suspects. We now fear for our lives. As I’m speaking to you, my 22-year-old brother no longer stays with us because he fears that the rangers could kill him,” said Cebisile.

Gamedze’s elder brother Dumakude was also killed in 1992 for allegedly poaching and trading in rhino horns. A team led by Ted Reilly, the founder of Big Game Parks, shot and killed Dumakude while he was at Big Bend Inn Hotel. Another man identified as Sibhabanene Ngcamphalala was also killed in the incident.

In a film titled ‘Cries of the World’, Ngcamphalala’s widow Annie narrates how her husband was killed. “My husband was at the inn with my brother. As he was leaving he met a band of men carrying guns. He was ordered to kneel down, then they shot him at close range in the back,” Annie told the film makers. However, Big Game Parks has vehemently disputed Annie’s version of events.

The killing of Dumakude and Ngcamphalala is featured in Big Game Parks’ 2014 publication, MILESTONE. In the publication, Big Game Parks disputes that the duo Dumakude and Ngcamphalala were killed execution style.

“As confirmed in the police report, Annie’s husband was armed, and was trading in rhino horns. They drew guns on the rangers, who shot in self-defence. The horns that were recovered were from a pregnant rhino cow killed at Mkhaya Game Reserve two days before with an illegal AK47,” reads an excerpt from the Big Game Parks publication.

One of the youngest victims killed by game rangers is 16-year-old Delisa Mngometulu who was killed in April 2016 at or near Mbuluzi Game Reserve. Delisa was a grade VII pupil at Mbandzamane Primary School at KaShewula.

He was killed while in the company of his two friends, aged 14 and 16 years respectively.  The teenagers were confronted by rangers while allegedly trying to enter the game park with a pack of dogs.

Thuli Mngometulu, the mother of Delisa Mngometulu (16), who was killed by game rangers at Mbuluzi Game Reserve in 2016. (Pic: Khulekani Nene)

In a statement released after the shooting, Mbuluzi Game Reserve Manager Tal Fineberg stated: “Incidents like this are always considered a tragedy, especially considering that they are avoidable. It is completely irresponsible that armed people with packs of hunting dogs are trying to enter into a game reserve at night. The poacher group in this case was made up of an adult and his two juvenile siblings, one as young as 14.”

However, according to the two surviving teenagers, there was no adult in their company. The rangers opened fire on the teenagers without a warning, said one of the survivors who was 14 years at the time.

Delisa’s mother Thuli Mngometulu has not recovered from the trauma of losing her son. In trying to find closure, she relocated from her matrimonial home at Shewula, opting to reside with relatives in another community at Hlane. The death of her son was too much to bear as it came almost a year after the tragic death of her husband, who was struck by lightning.

“I still cry each time I think about my son. He wasn’t carrying any weapon or a gun. Why did they kill him? They could have at least beaten him or arrested him. At least, I would have paid the fine,” said Thuli while shedding tears.

Thuli wants those who killed her son to be prosecuted for murder. She would also welcome compensation for her son’s death. After Delisa had been killed, a community member engaged an attorney to sue Mbuluzi Game Reserve but the family couldn’t proceed with the matter because of inadequate finances.

In 2015, Delisa’s cousin was also killed at or near Mbuluzi Game Reserve. Sabelo Mnisi (17), who was a form III pupil at Shewula High School at the time, was shot dead by game rangers on suspicion of poaching. The circumstances around Mnisi’s killing are almost similar to that of Delisa.

“He disappeared for hours and I called his cell phone, somebody else answered the phone and identified himself as a police officer. I was then called to the police station and that’s how I found out about his death” said Lizzy Mngometulu, the deceased’s aunt.

Lizzy said police informed her that Mnisi had been shot dead while poaching game at Mbuluzi game reserve. She had to request for donations from the community in order to accord her nephew a dignified burial. She also wants the killers of her nephew to be brought to book.

“What surprised me is that the owners of the game park did not even come to pass their condolences. They didn’t even donate a cent towards the funeral,” Lizzy said.

Mgcibelo Nhlabatsi (38), who was killed by game ranger at or near Hlane Royal National Park in 2011 (pic: Khulekani Nene)

Around May 2017, a mentally challenged man identified as John Fana Tsabedze (52) was shot dead by game rangers near IYSIS Farm Sihhoye. Rangers claimed that Tsabedze was shot while allegedly poaching. However, community members disputed this claim. The community protested and demanded justice for Tsabedze. According to some community members, a herdboy who was herding cattle in the same forest where Tsabedze was shot told community members that the shooting occurred about 3km from the perimeters of the game park.

Though there are dozens of suspected poachers who have been killed by rangers over the years, only one formal complaint has been lodged with the Eswatini Human Rights Commission. And the commission is yet to make a finding on the matter.

“We have referred the matter to a human rights lawyer who works closer with the commission. The lawyer offers free legal services. As a commission, we cannot go to court on behalf of the complainant but we can only offer advice and refer,” said an investigator at the Eswatini Human Rights Commission, speaking on behalf of Phumlani Dlamini, the Commission’s legal advisor.

He acknowledged that there is a worrying trend of suspected poachers being killed by game rangers. He added that the commission has the power to challenge in court any legislation it views as unconstitutional or laws which infringes on human rights. According to the investigator, the commission would have already challenged the constitutionality of the Game Act but lack of resources, including human capital, has hampered their efficiency.

Sibusiso Nhlabatsi, a human rights lawyer, describes the immunity from prosecution enjoyed by game owners and rangers as “absurd”.

“Can you imagine if there can be a law that says police be immune for any acts done in the course of their work? Impunity will follow. Game Rangers…ought not to be immune. The right to a fair hearing on all fronts presupposes that they be arrested for their act. They can raise their defence in court. The law as it stands elevates them (game rangers) higher than any other citizen(s),” says Nhlabatsi.

The Ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs did not respond when questioned about the killing of suspected poachers by game rangers. Phila Dlamini, the Director of Public Prosecution (DPP), referred all questions to the spokesperson of the ministry, Ncobile Dlamini.

Questions were sent to Ncobile on 10 September 2021, but she had not responded at the time of compiling this report. She did acknowledge receipt of the questions but she did not respond to subsequent texts sent to her via WhatsApp. She also did not pick when called through her mobile phone. The DPP was asked why game rangers who kill suspected poachers were not prosecuted.

Meanwhile, Big Game Parks Chief Executive Ted Reilly disputed that game rangers are immune from prosecution. “The Game Act in fact demands that force used is reasonable…the onus rests on the game ranger to demonstrate the reasonableness of actions taken. If this is not satisfied, then that game ranger is entirely open to the full might of the law and the Game Act cannot protect him”.

Reilly further denied that the Game Act gives rangers a licence to kill. He says in order for the Game Act to indemnify game rangers, they have an onus to demonstrate “reasonableness of the force used [and] reasonableness of the grounds of suspicion”. “At the end of the day, the courts will apply the test of the term “reasonable” and this is also the standard that society expects us all to live by,” said Reilly.

He insisted that the Game Act does not violate the constitution even though it legalises the killing of suspects without due process. “…We believe emphatically that any extrajudicial killing outside of legal provisions violates the constitution and therefore the laws of Eswatini. However, not everything is as simple as being right or wrong, especially at law, just as the right to life is enshrined in our Constitution together with other rights, they are also not as absolute as it might appear,” he said.

He acknowledged that some suspected poachers were shot and killed outside boundaries of game parks. But he justified such killings saying: “The Game Act is [a] national legislation, whose jurisdiction is kingdomwide. It is true that some of these instances [killing of suspected poachers] have inevitably occurred off the parks, as the illegality of [the] Game Act contraventions does not cease at the boundaries of protected areas. It is also true that game rangers have arrested many offenders outside the parks which have resulted in successful prosecutions in the court”.

When he was asked to reveal the numbers of suspected poachers who have been killed by game rangers in the past 30 years, Reilly referred this reporter to a booklet published by Big Game Parks in 2014 to commemorate its 50th anniversary. In the booklet tittled ‘MILESTONE’, Big Game Parks claims that rangers have killed only 16 poachers between 1991 and 2011.

According to the booklet: “The police record submitted to the Parliamentary Select Committee states that in the 20 years since the enactment of the Game Amendment Act a total of 16 poachers had been killed by rangers…The police report also records five rangers that were killed by poachers in the same period”.

However, in a film titled ‘Cries of the World’ produced by John Antonelli in 2010, it is mentioned that “since (the Game Amendment Act came into effect in 1991) an estimated 100 lives have been violently taken in the name of the Game Act.”

The film features Eswatini’s only environmental lawyer Thuli Makama, who was the director of the now defunct Yonge Nawe (SiSwati for “you too must conserve the environment”) an environmental organisation she founded in 1996 which championed environmental justice. Makama won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize in 2010 for her outstanding efforts in protecting the environment and the rights of poor communities residing near game parks.

In its 2014 publication the ‘MILESTONE’, Big Game Parks attempted to discredit Makama and other NGOs who have exposed the killing of suspected poachers with impunity.

“There is now a rapidly growing body of NGOs mushrooming up around the global rhino crisis, which provides a fertile fundraising opportunity. The plight of the rhino is a highly emotive topic and the campaigns of many of these NGOs are laced with emotion and sentiment, which successfully attracts the sympathy and support of good hearted people, who have no idea exactly where their money will land up. These NGOs (280 in RSA alone) are all dependent on donor funding and all competing for the same pots of money. Each of them must finance its own administration with salaries, vehicles and lifestyles and there is also the reality of extravagant global travel and accommodation to international workshops and seminars etc. all over the world,” reads the booklet.

Big Games Parks has objected to suggestions that the administration of the Game Act should be transferred from the King’s office to the government. Big Game Parks calls such attempts subversive.

“Over the past decade, a number of attempts have been made within Government to have responsibility for the administration of the Game Act and CITES removed from the King’s Office, where it currently is, and returned to the Ministry of Tourism. These subversive efforts have created confusion and even caused embarrassment to the Kingdom of Swaziland among foreign Governments, aid agencies and in international conservation circles,” says Big Game Parks.

Reilly, the Big Game Parks chief executive, is adamant that there is no need to amend the Game Act. He said: “Please also consider whether detractors – of the Game Act and of Game Rangers – are not perhaps being deliberately mischievous when stating their case. We would also mention that fully armed game rangers have been killed while exercising restrain when attempting an arrest of poachers”.

Khulekani Nene is an OSF fellow at the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg

Source of pictures (Internet)

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